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An unpredictable summer of crisis

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Geraint Talfan Davies

We are facing perhaps the most unpredictable period in British politics in living memory. It would be remarkable were Jeremy Hunt to best Boris Johnson in the race for the Tory leadership – remarkable but not impossible.

Pushed by competition for the hearts and minds of 160,000 party members, both men have been adopting increasingly dangerous and implausible stances that are the despair of industry as well as of the countries that are still our partners in Europe.

Boris Johnson tells us cheerily to “Do or die”, while Jeremy Hunt, the allegedly more moderate candidate, tells businesses that going bust would be a price worth paying for a ‘no deal’, though he would do it with a ‘heavy heart’. My heavy heart versus your bankruptcy. What’s unfair about that?

We will end up with a Tory leader elected by a small and shrinking group that, at best, numbers only about one-sixth of the number that marched for Europe through London a few months ago. All research suggests that the Tory membership is not only unrepresentative of the country, but it also is not even representative of Conservative voters.

On such a flaky mandate the winner will seek to head a minority government if, indeed, he is the person chosen to visit the Queen following Mrs May’s departure. Experts at the Constitution Unit at University College, London remind us that being elected to lead a party is not in itself sufficient – that person must also be able to command a majority in the Commons.

That is by no means guaranteed in a Commons where, even with the DUP, the government has a working majority of only five, that will reduce to four when it loses Brecon & Radnorshire by-election. It also has to contend with a not insubstantial group of Conservative MPs who believe Mr Johnson is utterly unfit to hold the highest office.

His allies as much as his detractors fear that, if it is Mr Johnson who gets to reside in Downing Street, future historians may say of him, as Edward Gibbon said of the emperor Severus :

“He promised only to betray, he flattered only to ruin, and however he might occasionally bind himself by oaths and treaties, his conscience, obsequious to his interest, always released him from the inconvenient obligation.”

So, we do not know for certain who will be the leader of the Tory Party, nor, possibly who might be Prime Minister, nor whether the Commons might withhold its confidence either before or after the summer recess.

Neither do we know what will result when the fantasies of campaigning hit the harsh realities of negotiation with the EU – an entity whose GDP is almost seven times that of the UK.

Even with so much at stake for our economy and our communities, we cannot know either how many MPs will put country before party, in ways that would either produce a general election or even a new referendum.

If it is to be a general election, the Constitution Unit experts argue that it would need to be called in the first week of September in order for it take place before 31 October. Any later and the government would have to seek another extension to the Brexit deadline from the EU.

A referendum would then require another six months – to pass the necessary legislation and to gain the approval of the Electoral Commission – that would push it beyond Christmas. An increasing number are arguing that it would be better to avoid the pain and uncertainty of a referendum by simply revoking Article 50.

This is the mess that an imprecise referendum debate, a close result, an inept and divided government, and a dissembling opposition leader have got us into. Baldrick would be appalled.

The next months will doubtless see a battle between the executive and Parliament such as we have not witnessed in centuries. If it goes the wrong way, a constitutional crisis could well be followed by a financial and an economic crisis.

It is the threat of that crisis that is leading many in different parties to advocate cross-party alliances, whether to fight the Brecon & Radnorshire by-election or to fight the kamikaze pilots of the ERG on a wider front. Some will say this flies in the face of all the partisan traditions of British politics, but the gravity of our situation requires exceptional action.

With this in mind, the Welsh Government’s decision to urge rejection of a ‘no deal’ scenario, to call for a new referendum and to declare that in such a referendum it would campaign for us to remain is a hugely welcome and important development, even if belated.

First, it allies a Labour Welsh Government with those in the Labour Party who are calling for a referendum, not with those who resist it or continue to prevaricate. It sends the clearest message to Jeremy Corbyn and his stubborn backroom team.

Second, it allies the Welsh Government with the Scottish Government, to the extent that the Welsh and Scottish First Ministers were able to last week to issue a pledge to work together to keep the UK in the EU.

They did this on the valid grounds that the ideas being peddled by Messrs Johnson and Hunt “have no basis in reality”, that ‘no deal’ would be disastrous for the Scottish and Welsh economies and would damage the reputation of the UK as a reliable international partner, and that it would undermine the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process on the island of Ireland.   

Establishing and expressing this common interest is all the more necessary in the wake of Mr Johnson’s comments this weekend that Brexit ‘done right’ could ‘cement and intensify’ the union. This is yet another sign that some on the right see Brexit as an opportunity to put the devolved administrations on a new and shorter lead. That would be short-sighted and may not produce the result Mr Johnson wants or expects.

Third, this commitment by the Welsh Government clears away any obstacle to the formation of a cross-party Remain coalition in Wales, by putting its position four square with that of the Liberal Democrats, Plaid Cymru and the Green Party. 

This is vitally important for, make no mistake, if a new referendum becomes a reality the Brexit Party will spring like a greyhound out of a trap. It will have money, it will be organised and it will have no scruple in deploying lies and half-truths to make its case, just as ruthlessly as it did in a different guise in 2016. 

A new referendum is winnable for the Remain side, but that win could be put in jeopardy by unnecessary division or deficiency of organisation. A strong, loud and unified Welsh voice can turn Wales decisively towards Europe, and help return the whole of the UK to face in the same sensible direction.